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Working with nature for flood control

...lessons from the Dutch experience
Cleaning up the Mess
Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the first of this two-part series in our ongoing Cleaning Up The Mess space, JOHANNES C NONNER, associate professor at the Institute for Water Education of UNESCO-IHE in The Netherlands, tells us how a low-lying country with a long coastline is meeting the challenge of controlling its floods and at the same time protects its environment to enhance safety and the general well-being of the people in the country. An outlook to the options for Trinidad and Tobago and activities carried out so far are highlighted. 


The Netherlands have been known for its focus on water management and environmental concern for many years. With more than half of the country lying below sea level, the land is protected from the sea and rivers by natural dunes and an intricate system of dikes. High tides in the North Sea and floods in rivers have challenged the robustness of the dikes. Who does not know the story of the little boy who put his finger in a hole in a dike to prevent it from collapse? Sea dikes were not strong enough in February 1953 when a combination of spring tide and an excessive north-westerly storm caused these structures in the province of Zeeland to fail.

The province was inundated and nearly 2,000 people lost their lives. From that horrible incident onwards The Netherlands government did take its responsibility and started an ambitious water management plan including the construction of sea barriers and the strengthening of dikes also preventing the natural coast transforming into an environmental mess. By 2010 the plans for coastal protection had been completed, but this does not mean that the Dutch have won the war against floods and environmental degradation. Still a lot of work needs to be done to protect rural and urban areas from flooding by the main Rhine, Waal and IJssel Rivers, but also the smaller streams of sizes comparable to the Trinidadian and Tobagonian watercourses which need a lot of attention.

As recently as 1995 the population in the low-lying parts of the province of Gelderland needed to be evacuated as a result of dangerously high water levels in the Rhine River and the pending collapse of its dikes. Fortunately, the dikes stood up to the pressure and the people could return to their homes in an undamaged environment. Even more recently, in August 2010, the small Dinkel River in the eastern part of the country flooded. Although the flooding did not cause any loss of life, there was a lot of damage to houses, furniture, land and cattle whereas the costs for cleaning up the mess were also substantial. Solutions to the flooding problems could have been a simple heightening of the dikes, but the Dutch people have chosen a broader approach of solving the issues at stake.

Measures against flooding are, nowadays, considered in combination with integrated water management and environmental upgrading. Integrated water management in the Dutch context means that not only flooding is prevented by the strengthening of dikes and giving more “space” to the river, but that other functions of the water courses are stimulated including the provision of water into ditch systems in the dry season. Environmental upgrading is achieved by the creation of “ecological corridors” whereby areas of prime ecological value are connected with each other by the creation of new nature in which rivers and streams play a prominent role.

For example, the flooding problems for the Dinkel River were solved by digging a 13-kilometre-long natural-looking stream with a 75-metre-wide stream bed providing space for flood water, but the watercourse and its banks also form one of the main ecological corridors in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment and the local Water Boards are responsible for the implementation of the water works. Crown prince Willem-Alexander is active in and fully supports the activities of the Dutch water industry and is rightly addressed as the “Royal Water Manager of The Netherlands.”


• To be continued next week


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